A reset of the rules is needed to give citizens a key role in European decision-making

European Citizen Consultations 2013

, by Nico Segers

European Citizen Consultations 2013

This year’s been coined ‘the Year of the Citizen’ by the European Commission. On 17 occasions, Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding will hear citizens in 14 European countries. The intention is to gather the views and interests of citizens regarding the future of Europe. Yet, such initiatives often run the risk of being watered down, fuelling a degree of skepticism and a ‘cold reception’ amongst citizens who fail to see real impact. Therefore the citizens should renegotiate the rules of the game, raising the bar of accountability towards the European institutions.

Yet another consultation process?

The principal right to participate in “the democratic life of the European Union” is codified in the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, Article 10(3). The European Commission sets out to do this right justice by “relating” to the citizens through dialogue. The objective of the consultation is defined very concisely: “to know which are the main obstacles in living, studying, working or travelling within the EU.”

The method appears straightforward: citizens are asked to express their opinions on various subjects, including Europe’s role in providing support for studying and professional life, and the effectiveness of ‘managing’ key policies and programmes. When remarks and demands will be transformed into political ‘deliverables’, the ownership of civil society’s demands quietly passes into the hands of European administration and will be adjusted by technocrats and legal experts. However, no European summary or report will be subject to approval (vote) by the subjects of the consultation, the citizens!

Shortcomings undermining the function of democratic consultations

There are substantial flaws staining the methods chosen for this process: the actual rules of the game, the lacking insistence of the public to co-define the rules, a fragile level of trust and lacking quality of inclusion. To enumerate some of the persistent critiques on consultation processes:

1. The dominant assumption that EU-level decisions are taken ‘over the citizens heads’ without the latter category being able to roll-back or block the adoption of a (revised) European law. A key mechanism is to contest the legality of European lawmaking, contending that it is discriminatory or unconstitutional and parallel basis. One cannot ignore the bitter claim that most likely European citizens would have rejected the proposed European Lisbon Treaty if they had the chance to have a direct say.

2. A discrepancy between the desire to provide a forum for the public voice and the restrictions in practice to support the desired outcome. Limitations such as selectiveness of chosen speakers, restrictions on speaking time allotted etcetera could lead to disappointments in practice.

3. The choice of platform for public participation not being in line with the particular area and level of public governance under discussion. The setting and access to should pose only a limited of burden on citizens willing to take part, while the outputs (a green paper, an agenda for action…) have to make sense and be instrumental

Citing Nanz and Dalferth: “As polities become larger and more heterogeneous and their tasks more complex, the erosion of democratic vitality may seem inevitable […] What is needed is a fundamental revitalization of democratic practices, which will empower ordinary citizens in new ways.” A coherent process of deeper “European awareness” must mature first into a broad willingness for citizen empowerment and political responsibility. People can weigh just as much on politics at the European level as they can on a local and regional level.

Individuals who consciously decide to participate in the civil dialogue are well-educated, financially secure and mobile people. This assembly of participants however, does not constitute a fair representation of society in itself. Granted, the dialogue process is entirely voluntary and thus politically apathetic, tacit and lethargic citizens will likely not be heard regarding their opinions and proposals for Europe. Broadening the base of an informed and citizens proves to be a major challenge.

Reinvigorating and deepening the democratic participatory processes

Influencing policies is often reduced to a game of power, the art of persuasion using verifiable facts and examples. These conditions tend to alienate people who don’t mind the quality of ‘analysis’ and fail to verify basic information. The already politically engaged citizen class should take advantage of the Citizen Consultations and advocate a firm legal framework supporting a greater stake of citizens in EU policymaking procedures. To deepen participatory rights within a new blueprint for policy action, a vocal petition won’t cut it. The turnaround can gain momentum when the demand for a new Constitutional Treaty of Europe become. Because we should purport a new ‘Social Contract (Rousseau) for a potent and effective governance of the European community.

The idea of citizen engagement for the ‘European cause’ can go hand in hand with occupational skills and personal talent development. Earlier research indicates that support for the EU is correlated to personal gains and professional and education skills which leverage opportunities generated by European integration. Just like it is possible for practically any citizen to follow parliamentary sessions, open consultations should be a standard practice on European, national and local levels.

All types of government (authority) must clearly state measurable follow-up actions at the end of a consultation, in order to instil trust and acknowledge that the public made their case(s).

It’s time for the rules of the game to be re-negotiated and to speak our minds about the current process, in which a blurry heterogeneity of demands and proposals is likely to be turned into a far too concise. The future chapters of the European Union can and should be written with ‘two hands’ instead of one, striking the balance between citizens and policymakers. The citizen must be informed to speak his mind, show that the presence of many outnumbers the arbitrary decisions of few (the political class). This way, we should redefine primary rules of how Europe is being governed.

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